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Lessons from Couples Therapy

I have been watching Couples Therapy on Showtime (10/10 recommend), which is always an interesting experience as I toggle from the lens of being the therapist and the client. It is hard not to analyze and fangirl over Orna Guralnik, a true master therapist, with her warm but direct approach. Five times an episode, I’m like, “damn, girl, great intervention.”  However, this isn’t a show just for therapists to nerd out on. The purpose is to demystify couples therapy and encourage watchers to go a little internal excavation of their own…if they dare. Even if you’re not in the space for deep self-reflection, it is fascinating to see who you relate to and who triggers you. Sometimes, these are one and the same.


Over the weeks, I have noticed some common themes that couples tend to play out in their relationships. These themes can be helpful for all of us to reflect on, regardless of our relationship status.


“If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” Although I absolutely hate the word “hysterical” due to the way it has been weaponized against women throughout history, I still find this to be a helpful concept and saw this play out with a bunch of the couples on the show. This is the idea that if we are reacting to something in the present that seems deeply out of proportion with the context, then we are likely reacting to something from the past. For example, DeSean and Elaine from season 1 are battling Elaine’s constant need for control in the relationship. When DeSean attends a funeral instead of spending time with Elaine, she reacts with deep frustration and criticism. With the help of Orna, it is revealed that Elaine is actually reacting from a place of trauma stemming from her experience of domestic violence in a previous relationship. With this knowledge, Elaine was able to check herself before she reacted to DeSean, and it allowed DeSean to be less reactive and more compassionate to Elaine when she got dysregulated.  


It is a good reminder for us all. When we have very strong reactions that do not seem to make sense, it can be super helpful to ask, “What am I ACTUALLY reacting to?”  Is this something from the past that is making me feel unsafe, unseen, unloved?  If we can get curious about those moments, we can curb a lot of conflict and headaches.


We manage other people’s emotions when we can’t manage our own. Another common theme was partners who struggled with their own anxiety and angst tended to be more controlling of their partners instead of dealing with their stuff. A great example of this is Michael and Michal from season 2. Michal deeply struggled with anxiety that she could not only not name but not manage. Instead, she spent most of her time degrading and attacking her partner when he couldn’t do the things that would calm her existential dread. This left Michael confused and also less likely to do the things that would actually help Michal manage her anxiety. By helping Michal own her anxiety, the couple was able to become much less at odds and more able to have a balanced approach to running their family life.


if you find yourself to be a controlling person, especially in relationships, this may be a great time to check in and see if these behaviors are because you have a hard time managing your own anxiety. You may unconsciously look to your partner to manage these feelings for you as you feel helpless in doing this yourself. And when they cannot, there can be deep anger and resentment that can damage the relationship. The good news is if you can learn to own and regulate some of that anxiety, it will be much easier to connect and get support from your partner.


Isolation is a relationship killer.  Again and again, we see couples consciously and unconsciously keeping things from each other. Their fears, anxieties, histories, insecurities. Whether they are afraid of their partner's reaction or do not want to be a burden, it creates a sense of disconnection and isolation in the relationship. When partners become silos in their stress or pain, it is a missed opportunity to receive care and support and creates a breeding ground for miscommunication. Not sharing leaves room to project fears and insecurities onto each other. A really common example of this is if one partner is feeling anxious about something outside the relationship, the other partner might read this as their partner is mad at them. This could lead to a whole lot of disconnection and confusion if the couple cannot communicate around this. We also keep out all the care and support we long for. When we feel scared or worried, it is usually when we need connection the most but also deny it most. One of the things that makes a relationship strong and resilient is the ability to share and comfort each other in times of distress. The more isolation, the more vulnerable the relationship becomes. This is not to say that we need to share every little detail of how we are feeling, but keeping all our stress and anxiety in tends to be detrimental to our relationships.


Lots of good stuff to reflect on from the show, so I encourage you to give Couples Therapy a watch. Whether you are currently in a romantic relationship or not, there is so much to reflect on that can be applied to any relationship, including the one with yourself!


Until next time,

Dr. Jess

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